We humans evolved under relatively simple conditions. For nearly all the 400,000 years that our ancestors were adapting to environmental pressures, those pressures were surprisingly constant and straightforward. Aside from avoiding predators, looking for food, and staring at natural phenomenon such as rain and thunderstorms, we mostly spent our time like every group species must: trying to out-compete each other.
We learned to tell lies so we could gain advantage over others and we learned to try to detect lies so others wouldn’t gain advantage over us. Somewhere along the line, perhaps around 70,000 years ago, one or more genetic mutations resulted in the human brain becoming capable of creating fantasies. As some of those fantasies enabled us to develop larger-scale cooperation and as that cooperation had survival benefits, the mutations spread throughout the population until they were added to the sum of the human genome. That’s why we believe in things that don’t exist, such as ghouls and gods and goblins and ghosts. That’s why we believe in souls and spooks and in the efficacy of prayer and ritual.
Sure, there were always and there continues to be massive downsides to living in fantasy-land but evolution has no way to go back and undo things; life is always moving forward, adapting whatever already exists in order to achieve a slightly better fit with the present environment. Nature has no goals, no objectives. It’s all blind adaptation with no Grand Plan, any more than the water molecules in our morning cup of coffee have a Grand Plan.
One of the many enormous problems about living in a fantasy-land is that we project onto the outside world things we believe but for which there may be little or no supporting evidence. Religion with its magical gods and goblins is the most obvious example, but our projections don’t end there. As we’re a group species we rely on the group leader making adequate decisions. It would be terrifying to know that in reality everyone is more or less as incompetent as we ourselves are, so we shield ourselves by projecting our hopes and dreams onto our leaders. This is why we get so emotional about our preferred politician or sporting personality or media celebrity: we rarely perceive even a fraction of the real person because we’re projecting all our fantasies onto the surface image and we fervently believe there’s a concordance between fantasy and actuality.
Of course, in the fullness of time our leaders, being merely human, disappoint us and we react emotionally in ways out of proportion to their actual failures because now we have to go to all the trouble of constructing a new fantasy around someone else; and so the cycle continues.
Today that cycle has led us to populism. This phenomenon is sweeping the globe and will destroy our civilization. I predicted this path several years ago and only now are a few commentators slowly beginning to notice the possibility; the consensus however in both the media and in populations as a whole is that the problems we’re experiencing today are because of a uniquely inept set of leaders and these problems will be mitigated next time around when we elect more adequate leaders.
The problem is, guess what? We elected our current crop of totally inadequate leaders.
If we got it so very badly wrong, all around the world, on what grounds should we believe we’ll do better next time? And given that politicians have learned that success is best achieved by telling blatant lies, why should we think that we’ll have the option tomorrow to vote for anyone who’s competent and ethical? We’ve just taught every single one of our wannabe leaders that we will swallow the most pathetically obvious lies and allow ourselves to be emotionally manipulated by empty phrases and infantile promises. Basically we’ve told politicians the world over that we’re a bunch of patsies there for the taking. Why would any politician ignore this hugely important lesson?
This is why our civilization is collapsing: because we’re essentially stupid.
This is not our fault. The human brain isn’t adapted for thinking. Although we have around 1.5kg of brain sitting inside our crania, most of it is busy doing fairly rudimentary things like keeping our heartbeat at the right rate, ensuring we don’t fall over when we walk, remembering the location of food sources, and interpreting inputs from our sensory organs. Furthermore, on those rare occasions when the human brain is active in thought it burns around 30% of our blood glucose which makes it a very expensive part of the body to fuel. Glucose burned by the brain is no longer available for powering muscles which may be needed to escape from predators or to search for food. As we’ve spent 99% of our evolutionary history in conditions of scarcity, it makes perfect evolutionary sense for us to do as little thinking as possible.
And so that’s what we do. The great majority of people goes from birth to death without ever thinking an original thought. When we imagine we’re “thinking” what we’re really doing is simply moving around inside our brains the ideas we’ve been given by other people. Our beliefs and opinions aren’t really ours; they are the accumulation of sound-bites and simplistic notions we’ve picked up along the way and absorbed uncritically and now we repeat them so others can pick them up in the same way.
This was fine back in our evolutionary history. It didn’t matter much if Joe’s assertion about the best way to nap a flint wasn’t really the best way so long as the flint ended up more-or-less sharp. It didn’t matter if Mary’s assertions about ghouls and gods and spirits and souls were entirely erroneous because in the context of small hunter-gatherer groups the many downsides of these fantasies were of negligible impact on our species as a whole.
Today however the cumulative efforts of a tiny number of clever people have created technologies of enormous impact. Because we’re a stupid species we’re now using these clever technologies to destroy everything around us. We’ve nearly completed our extermination of all the large mammals; we’re stripping the oceans of life and crippling its ecosystems; we’ve nearly finished burning down what little rain forest remains; we’re changing the climate and thus changing ecosystems around the globe; and we may well exterminate ourselves when one or more of our infantile and entirely inadequate “leaders” throws a tantrum and decides to lash out with the terrible weapons of mass destruction that are waiting patiently in their silos.
On a smaller yet no less pernicious scale we believe in pizzagate and “gun rights,” we mindlessly repeat “there’s no smoke without fire” and “take back control,” and we reliably self-sabotage in so many uncountable ways.
We are doing all of this because our tiny human brains simply aren’t evolved to cope with complexity. We don’t know how to extrapolate based on real-world information. Instead we either draw straight lines into the future or we blindly believe whatever our “leaders” tell us.
This is why in the 1960s cartoons showed automobile-like space craft; it’s why those Star Trek episodes had their space cowboys whizzing around the galaxy in craft that had a central mainframe computer but no personal communication devices. Instead of thinking “what types of technology would all have to exist in order to make X possible?” we simply draw a straight line from where we are now.
That’s why for a couple of decades people thought India would become an economic powerhouse. Just think! Over a billion people! Surely they must end up being a huge market! While all the journalists and analysts were being bullish on India, I pointed out that India would prevent itself from becoming an economic powerhouse because its mountain of red tape and resultant corruption meant that individual Indian states couldn’t even trade with each other, never mind the rest of the world. Thus economic growth would remain low regardless of official figures claiming fantastical increases in GDP. For the last decade everyone and their dog has believed that China will overtake the USA and become the world’s largest economy, but I predicted that China will run into the hard wall of state repression and thus not be able to out-innovate and out-invest Western economies. It will be another five to ten years before the journalists and analysts wake up to this reality.
I also predicted the success of the Brexit campaign when everyone knew that the vote for Remain would be far, far greater. I predicted the success of Trump early in the Primaries when everyone knew that Clinton would win and could give dozens of reasons why Trump had no chance. In fact I predicted back in 1980, after visiting the USA for six months, that the USA would be the first major Western democracy to fall into de facto tyranny by voting for a cartoon-like candidate who promised ice-cream and Disneyland forever.
Of course I also got a couple of things wrong, at least from a timing perspective. But more than 80% of my large-scale predictions about the future have so far been correct.
I can’t claim credit for these accurate predictions. Just as a tiny percentage of people have brains that enable them to become great physicists or mathematicians, likewise a tiny percentage have brains that can take in real-world data and use it to form complex extrapolations rather than merely simplistic and misleading straight-line projections. Apparently my brain lets me do this and I’ve worked hard to improve its abilities over the years by reading and traveling widely so that it has more data to work with. This is no different from a naturally tall and lean person training to be a distance runner by capitalizing on what they were born with.
So what makes for good predictions? First of all, it’s essential to have on-the-ground knowledge. I knew India was a hopeless case after trying to work in Delhi for several weeks. There was no aspect of daily life that wasn’t hopelessly tangled. Even something as simple as buying a cellular telephone was in effect impossible without providing endless documentation and endless bribes. I knew Brexit was inevitable because I knew that so many Brits grow up on a constant diet of “we won the war” and “we stood alone” and other utterly incorrect ideas about World War II. Thus a huge percentage of the population would equate voting for Brexit with regaining the imaginary glories of a Technicolor past. And I knew Trump would win because of multiple factors: everyone who votes Republican would vote for Trump simply because they just can’t stop themselves voting for their team regardless of who the candidate happens to be; new voters would emerge from dark places because Trump validated all their inadequacy-driven fears and hatreds; and the USA is still too backward to embrace an intelligent capable female. I was delighted to see Clinton winning the popular vote but because I understood the fundamental inadequacies of the highly dysfunctional Electoral College system I knew she would lose the election to Trump regardless.
Returning to our fundamental problem of stupidity, it is absolutely essential for us to set aside our current politically correct belief that “everyone is equal.” This is perhaps the single most damaging fantasy we indulge in today.
Everyone is not equal, and that’s self-evident. Some are tall while others are short. Some have the aptitude to become skilled neurosurgeons while others become brick-layers. The list of disparities is endless. But we pretend that we’re equal provided we can’t see the inequalities. Sure, Jamie may have failed all his exams and indulge in self-destructive behavior but he’s just as good as and just as smart as Jeanne with her PhD in astrophysics. Why? Because we tell ourselves so. Otherwise we’d have to admit that Jamie isn’t in fact equal to Jeanne and that would make us very uncomfortable. No one likes to be uncomfortable so we choose to believe we’re all equal even when it’s blatantly untrue. Instead of facing reality we blithely say things like “intelligence can’t be measured and anyway there are many different kinds of intelligence and anyway it’s not the most important thing.”
So long as we deny the fact that a huge percentage of us is incapable of meaningful thought, incapable of reasoning, we will continue to act on fundamentally false assumptions. That’s no different from a general sending her troops into battle armed with candy bars because she’s convinced that her candy bars and her enemy’s tanks are equal and therefore candy bars are just as good as tanks. Our general will vigorously defend her belief that “the efficacy of weapons can’t be measured and anyway there are different kinds of efficacy and anyway efficacy in battle isn’t the most important thing.”
Anyone care to guess what the outcome will be when our general clings to this approach? That’s right. And it’s the same outcome we’re seeing across the globe in nearly every aspect of our lives.
It’s not an accident that we’ve elected infantile halfwits, nor that we’re fouling the very planet we depend on for our existence. It’s because for the most part we can’t think and we don’t think. We just repeat sound-bites while we focus on the shortest of short-term objectives. Who cares if we burn down the forests that provide more than 30% of our planet’s oxygen? That quarterly bonus will enable me to buy a more prestigious car! Who cares if we strip all life from the ocean? My next catch will pay off my boat loan!
It really is no longer adequate for us to pretend that “we’re all equal” because the results are catastrophic. Plus we’re being hypocrites. Despite our politically correct protestations of universal equality we demand that the pilots who fly the aircraft we travel in are fully qualified and we certainly want the best possible neurosurgeon to operate on us should we have a brain tumor. None of us, suffering terrible tooth-ache, go to our next-door neighbor rather than to a trained dentist because we truly believe that “everyone is equal really.”
There is no difference between electing an incompetent politician and accepting an unqualified pilot except for the time it takes for the catastrophic effects to be seen. And it’s no good saying that “politics is too complicated to make predictions about what will happen” because that’s merely the equivalent of saying “no one can predict exactly where an incompetent pilot will crash the aircraft.”
We don’t need to predict with precision; it’s enough to know that a catastrophe is inevitable. Only a fool accepts an inevitable but avoidable catastrophe merely because the timing and precise nature of the catastrophe is impossible to pin down years ahead of time.
The thing is, of course, we are fools. We build houses on flood planes merely because we can’t predict precisely when our homes will inevitably be flooded or washed away. We build sensitive structures near or on top of tectonic fault lines merely because we can’t predict precisely when the next earthquake will occur. We stuff McSlop down our throats merely because we can’t predict precisely when we’ll suffer catastrophic cardiovascular failure. And we smoke cigarettes merely because we can’t predict precisely when we’ll die of emphysema or lung cancer.
Slowly, sometimes, we learn to compensate for the fact we’re all stupid. We create laws to restrict where we should build houses and we run ads alerting people to the dangers of smoking. These attempts are usually not very successful (because we’re stupid) but they are at least a beginning.
Clearly we need to make similar beginnings with regards to the major factors influencing our lives. Until we develop systems of governance that fully take into account the fact that the vast percentage of us are incapable of reasoning and are for the most part utterly ignorant of important real-world facts, we’ll continue to invite tyranny and chaos.
Why should anyone believe this type of mitigation-driven approach could work? Because there are examples that show we can do it once we’ve recognized and accepted that the problem exists.
Automobile engineers know we’re stupid. We have a century’s worth of accident reports that show clearly how incapable we are. So engineers have developed seat belts and air bags and anti-lock brakes and crumple zones and now autonomous self-driving capabilities, all to compensate for the fact we’re useless at driving.
We desperately need to adopt the same approach in many other areas of our lives before it is far too late.
It’s no good denying that we’re a stupid species because the evidence is incontrovertible. It’s no good being angry about stupidity because that’s the same as being angry that we can’t fly. Slowly, very slowly, we learned that instead of having fantasies about magic flying carpets or mystical flying beasts we should focus instead on building flying machines. Sally’s fervent belief in the existence of magic flying carpets is irrelevant; what counts are real-world outcomes.
We can’t become less stupid, but we can compensate in many ways for our inevitable stupidity. First though we need to accept that we’re all stupid, and unfortunately there’s zero sign of that today. Which means the horrors are coming and none of us will escape.